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July 2016Vol. 17, No. 5The Essential Role of Supervisors in Addressing Secondary Traumatic Stress

By Erika Tullberg, Assistant Research Professor, New York University (NYU) School of Medicine

This article is part of a series of guest articles on the topic of secondary traumatic stress (STS). Each article in the series focuses on STS at a different level of child welfare—the worker/peer level, manager/supervisor level, and organizational level.

Over the past several years, there has been an increased focus on the issue of STS within the child welfare field. This is a welcome development given the level of trauma exposure that comes with child welfare work1 and its potential impact on the quality of work2 and staff attrition.3,4 Many are also realizing that traditional approaches to managing STS—which have often focused on teaching frontline staff self-care strategies—do not adequately address the role organizations can play in mitigating or, alternately, exacerbating STS.5  

This broader perspective on addressing secondary trauma in the child welfare context needs to include attending to supervisors' critical function. Supervisors play a key role in STS prevention and mitigation. Supervisors have the most contact with frontline staff and are often in the best position to identify and address their STS symptoms, including how they are impacting staff-client engagement and interactions. However, agencies cannot assume that this will happen without providing supervisors with specialized training in this area, and without providing the time needed to have supervision extend beyond a compliance focus. Without these two pieces in place, supervisors can become overwhelmed and ineffective.

It is also important to remember that supervisors are not immune from the effects of STS themselves. In addition to hearing second-hand about trauma experienced by their staff's clients and bearing a higher level of accountability for client safety, they also have personal experiences of directly working with children and families—either in the past, as caseworkers, and/or in the present, assisting or covering for their staff—that they bring with them to their jobs. Supervisors need to be able to process their own experiences and reactions with their own supervisors before they are in the position to do so with their staff. Instead, supervisors are often caught in the middle, struggling to manage both their direct reports' stress and agency administrators' pressures and mandates, all in the midst of limited resources.

This highlights an additional factor for child welfare programs to consider: that nearly everyone up the hierarchy is a supervisor of one kind or another, and that everyone is impacted in one way or another by the traumatic stress that is inherent in child welfare work. Just as narrowly focusing an agency's response to STS on frontline staff is insufficient, providing supervisors with additional skills will have a limited impact if their managers cannot or do not provide adequate support and guidance, or if the overall agency culture remains highly reactive and crisis-driven. Attending to supervisors' role in identifying and mitigating STS should be part of a broader organizational effort to understand and address the impact that traumatic stress has on overall agency culture and functioning. Members of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and others have developed a number of resources (below) that may be helpful for child welfare programs seeking to address this important issue, which include:

1 Horwitz, M.J. (2006). Work-related trauma effects in child protection social workers. Journal of Social Service Research. 32(3), 1-18.
2 Regehr, C., LeBlanc, V., Shlonsky, A., & Bogo, M. (2010). The influence of clinicians' previous trauma exposure on their assessment of child abuse risk. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 198(9), 614-618.
Bride, B., Jones, J., & MacMaster, S. (2007). Correlates of secondary taumatic stress in child protective services workers. Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work (The Hawthorn Press, Inc.). 4(3/4), 69-80.
4 DePanfilis, D., & Zlotnik, J.L. (2008). Retention of front-line staff in child welfare: A systematic review of research. Children and Youth Services Review. 30(9), 995-1008.
5 ACS-NYU Children's Trauma Institute. (2012). Addressing secondary traumatic stress among child welfare staff: A practice brief. New York: NYU Langone Medical Center.